As I have previously mentioned, one of the big sticking points for me regarding Tibetan Buddhism was the prevalence of such things as deities and other supernatural beliefs. As an atheist I found that sort of thing quite off-putting.
One thing that made me sit up and take notice was one of the first books I began to read that dealt explicitly with secular Buddhism. This was Life’s Meandering Path by Karma Yeshe Rabgye, who is a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition who lives in India (though he is from England originally). Here was a fellow Westerner who was clearly deeply immersed in the very tradition that I was having my doubts about, but was also espousing a secular form of Buddhism.
I decided that I would write to Yeshe and ask him what his take was on the more superstitious aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, and how he reconciled them with a secular mindset. Here’s the email I sent him:
In Life’s Meandering Path you paint a picture of a secular form of Buddhism. This has, of course, been further expounded by Stephen Batchelor and others.
I regard myself as Buddhist in that I accept the Four Noble Truths and endeavour to follow the Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts. I see much wisdom in the teachings of the Buddha, as it seems eminently practical and sensible.
However, I am also what could perhaps be regarded as a typical European: sceptical about anything supernatural, superstitious or for which there is no evidence. I am most definitely a secular, agnostic atheist.
I have been meditating for some months with two Buddhist groups: a Karma Kagyu centre and a Triratna centre. The most convenient for me, and certainly the one I feel most comfortable at, is the Karma Kagyu centre, but I find that such things as belief in reincarnated lamas and tantric deities turn me off somewhat.
As an adherent of Tibetan Buddhism yourself, how do you reconcile such aspects of it with a secular, sceptical mindset? How do such things as pujas and guru devotion fit into this? I would appreciate your input on this.
Yeshe was kind enough to reply to my email, and his advice, as you might expect, was good. It introduced an angle that I had not previously considered. He wrote:
Dear BarryThank you so much for taking the time to write to me. I hope you are finding some benefit from reading my book.Personally, I see pujas, guru devotion, visualizing deities and all the other metaphysical practices as a form of ‘skillful means’. What I mean is, I see them as a skillful way of working on my mind. We have to understand that everything stems from our mind. So it is the mind that will free us from suffering, and the same mind will keep us suffering if we do not work on it. Whatever we experience outside of ourselves is just a projection of the mind.When we are reciting pujas we are planting seeds in our mind. That is why we should do them in our own language. That way they have the power to change our thinking. If we continuously recite a puja wishing all beings are free from suffering, eventually, compassion will grow in our mind. When we do guru devotion we are not saying he or she is better than us. We are just breaking down our pride and arrogance. That is also what we are doing when we prostrate to Gautama Buddha. When we are visualizing deities we are not seeing them as real beings, we are just trying to take on the good qualities attached to that deity. Such as, taking compassion from Chenrezig or cleansing from Vajrasattva. So do not see these things as real – even if they are taught that way. Just see them as a skillful way of working on your mind.As for reincarnate lamas, I would suggested you see them as a human being just like yourself – because that is what they are. Their minds may be trained in Buddhist practices, but their bodies are no different from yours. They are also subject to birth, old age, sickness and death. If he or she is a good teacher and is helping you, show them respect. Not because of some title or other, but because they are helping tame your mind.I have just recently posted a blog about rebirth and you can find it here: http://buddhismguide.org/buddhism-guide-blog/Barry, I hope this clears up any doubts you may have, but please feel free to email me back if you want to discuss further.Thank you once again for emailing me.RegardsYeshe
[EDIT: I should add that I asked Yeshe’s permission before posting this. I am not in the habit of publicising private conversations.]
Yeshe’s way of looking at things has completely changed the way I see Tibetan Buddhism, which can only be a good thing. I now see it as something I could be part of.
One thing that has changed since I first emailed Yeshe, however, is that I no longer feel more comfortable at the Karma Kagyu (Tibetan) centre than at the Triratna centre. I now feel at home in both.
I hope you don’t mind, but I was wondering why you feel you have to commit to a Buddhist sect. That seems a bit limiting to me. When I finished my five years of Buddhist philosophy training I started to study the pali canon. I have since studied Zen Buddhism. I think it is important to take what you find beneficial from all types of Buddhism. I do not think you will find one Buddhist sect that will have all the answers. Please do not mind me saying this. It is only my opinion.
I didn’t make this clear in my earlier posts or in my original email to Yeshe, but although I think I will eventually have to decide which tradition I’m going to regard as my “home base,” so to speak, I have no intention of limiting myself to just that one tradition. I’m reading as widely as I can, taking in authors from various Buddhist traditions as well as canonical works from various traditions. Also, even if and when I commit to going deeper in one particular Buddhist group, I plan to keep links with the other. As Yeshe said, no single sect has all the answers, and as I’m still learning I want to give myself as wide a grounding in Buddhist thought and practice as possible.
(Chenrezig image from Artzotec.)